Designing with Children

The research context: children transforming spatial design?

This website is part of the three year research project ‘Children Transforming Spatial Design: Creative Encounters with Children’ (2013-2016) at The University of Sheffield, School of Architecture. It is funded by a Leverhulme Trust research project grant.

This research builds on the well-established fields of children’s participation and design participation, but shifts the focus to the little-studied dialogue and interactions between the designer and the child. In this way the research aims to find out more about what actually happens in this exchange and to better understand the impact of such interactions on the design and creative process and even on the designers themselves. This is the lens through which we will ultimately revisit concepts such as children’s voice and ‘authentic’ and ‘genuine’ participation. How are these concepts understood in the context of a collaborative creative process where imposed constraints are multiple and stakeholder voices are diverse?

The projects on this website build on a valuable legacy of children’s engagement in spatial design since the 1960s and 1970s with projects such as Lynch’s groundbreaking ‘Growing Up in Cities’ (1977) which introduced new policy and research realms for children’s participation: Chawla’s follow-up ‘Growing Up in an Urbanizing World’ (2001); Ward’s exploration of children’s experiences of the city and the country (1978, 1988); Hart’s community development and environmental care (1997); Adams’ built environment education and schoolyards (1990); Francis et al’s neighbourhood spaces (1984); Moore’s outdoor play-spaces (1990); a whole range of people involved in the child-friendly cities movement (see e.g. Driskell 2001, Horelli 1998) and many more we don’t have space to mention here.

The rationale for children’s participation has evolved through time, dominant themes including children’s rights, children as service consumers and participation as a means to learn. Each of these positions can be criticized and there have been suggestions that the discourse has been largely contingent on developmental paradigms and stereotypes of children’s capacities (Mannion 2010). When it comes to design participation, professional regulatory obligations together with the largely legalistic and time-bounded nature of the planning process have tended to inhibit children’s creative exchanges with design professionals. This website, therefore, celebrates examples from practice that showcase creative child-designer interactions and active involvement of children. It aspires to challenge assumptions about the design profession and notions of expertise, and raise questions as to children’s prescribed roles in spatial interventions, thus introducing debates around children in design.

As well as creating this website, the wider research also involves interviews with designers who have worked with children, three case studies following live design processes and workshops to disseminate and further develop the findings. If you would like to join the conversation and contribute to the research project, you are warmly invited to join our network and send us feedback through the contact page, or contribute to our blog.